General David H Petraeus, the top United States Commander in Middle East, has signed a secret directive ordering that 'Special Operations' troops be sent to countries such as Iran for reconnaissance, a move that may lead to possible strikes against Tehran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate. These military officials will be dispatched to nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa as well as Iran on intelligence gathering assignments, 'The New York Times' reported.
Citing unnamed officials, it said the order permitting reconnaissance could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate. The document appeared to authorise specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country's nuclear programme or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive, according to the daily.
"The Obama administration insists that for the moment, it is committed to penalising Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions," the newspaper said.
"Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans to be prepared in advance, in the event that President (Barack) Obama ever authorises a strike."
The defence department 'can't be caught flat-footed', said one Pentagon official.
The daily noted that while the George W Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities, the present directive intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term.
Its goals are to build networks that could 'penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy' Al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to 'prepare the environment' for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document, which was viewed by the paper, said.
"The order, however, does not appear to authorise offensive strikes in specific countries," it said.
The daily reported that one of the reasons for broadening the secret activities was because the US military wanted to get over its dependence on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies. Some officials noted that the authorised activities could strain relationships with friendly governments like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or incite the anger of hostile nations like Iran and Syria.
The directive, the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, was signed on September 30 last year, and reportedly may have been the cause for the surge of US military activity in Yemen that began three months later.